H.E. VLADIMIR GAŠPARIČ, Slovenian Ambassador to Serbia: MUTUAL SATISFACTION WITH BILATERAL COOPERATION

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Slovenia has a strategic interest in the EU expanding to include the Western Balkans, and thinks that the Berlin Process is exceptionally important for accomplishing that goal. Through concrete expert assistance we have been supporting Serbia’s European integration process, and in bilateral sense, we have been improving our relations to mutual satisfaction

Slovenia and Serbia have an excellent political and economic cooperation, and it gives us a great pleasure to say that the growing economic cooperation is a crowning achievement of these good relations – says H.E. Mr. Vladimir Gasparič, Slovenian Ambassador to Serbia, in his interview for Diplomacy&Commerce magazine. We are also talking to Mr. Gasparič about the current European issues, regional economic challenges, and bilateral cooperation between Slovenia and Serbia.

To what extent can the latest developments in Spain jeopardize Europe’s unity?

As an observer from Belgrade, I think I can say that the issue of Catalan independence and referendum did not jeopardize Europe’s unity. In a sense, it might have even made it stronger. However, this story is probably not finished yet, and there will be a dilemma what is more important – adherance to the state / constitutional laws and country’s integrity, or respecting human rights? Obviously, in some cases, there is this dilemma, since both of these categories prominently feature in the basic EU values. Do you think that the old saying of „when Germany or France sneeze, smaller European countries get the flu“ is still relevant, or are they, thanks to their smaller size, protected from big turbulences? ― Germany and France are definitely strong driving forces behind the European Union, and developments around them cause consequences for others. Not only in the EU but also outside of it. A typical example of this was the economic crisis that moved from Germany and France to Slovenia, since EU member states are the biggest trade partners of Slovenia (around 70%). Perhaps we could draw similar parallels to the case of a migrant crisis (the so-called Balkan Route). I would say that all European countries feel the turbulence that happens, for instance, in Germany and France. We are all members of the same family, and sometimes unpleasant things happen to good families.

Do you think that the Western Balkan countries are utilizing the Berlin Process and the subsequent incentives well, in the light of the latest statements by the president of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker?

The Western Balkan countries are very interested in the proper utilization of the Berlin Process, especially those aspects related to economic components – infrastructure construction, etc. Such projects represent an important element of the connection between the Western Balkan states which is very significant. Sometimes we are under the impression that Brussels or Berlin are not sufficiently aware of the significance of the Berlin Process, and that its initiatives are lost at certain moments. In the Western Balkans, there is no other such initiative of the same signficance as the Berlin Process, and there should be strong advocates at all levels for the Process to continue to grow. The statements made by the president of the European Commission have a politically positive significance for the Western Balkans. However, we should keep in mind that his statements relate to the ten-year period in the future, and it is difficult to predict what will happen during that time in the Western Balkans, the EU and the world. For Serbia itself, Mr. Juncker’s statement regarding the potential enlargement date is a positive message that Serbian officials have

always asked for.

How do you view the initiative about infrastructural and other networking in the region from the Slovenian perspective?

Generally speaking, initiatives relating to cooperation and networking in the region, especially in the field of infrastructure, are welcome, because they bring multifaceted positive economic effects. Establishing appropriate infrastructure and links enables easier and faster flow of people, goods and services. It also significantly reduces the price of transport. In Slovenia we are also aware of the importance of infrastructural connectivity – above all the road one – and we have built a network of motorways that connect Slovenia in the direction of the West-East and North-South. There are also serious plans for the construction and modernization of the ferry (freight) line (second route) between the port of Koper and the continental part of our country.

The case of Agrokor also demonstrates the dangers of regional networking. What kind of consenquences is the resolution of this problem going to have on all of our economies?

The issue with Agrokor, which encompasses several countries from the region (Croatia, Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro and Slovenia), is certainly a negative example of economic integration that was not based on sound foundation. Regarding the serious danger and the possibility of significant damage in the event of bankruptcy of the Croatian concern, as well as an inadequate response from the competent authorities in Croatia, representatives of the mentioned regional countries have agreed on certain joint measures in order to reduce the potential damage to the bank accounts of Agrokor’s companies outside Croatia. I sincerely hope that the Croatian company will restructure as soon as possible, and sell its companies in the region, with the aim of minimizing economic damage in the regional countries.

How much do bilateral relations between Serbia and Slovenia contribute to stronger stability and good relations in the region?

According to official estimates from both sides, the relations between Serbia and Slovenia are an excellent example of cooperation in the region. For Slovenia, stability in the region is extremely important, because we all remember how this region looks when it’s unstable. Slovenia is strategically interested in the EU enlarging to include the Western Balkans. We are not only talking about this but also specifically helping through participation of numerous Slovenian experts in projects that bring Serbia closer to European values, in the areas such as the rule of law, state administration, economic development, etc. After EU member states, Serbia is our first foreign trade partner and another destination for investments abroad.

How much does the work done by the Mixed Commission help in advancing the bilateral cooperation between the two countries?

The Mixed Commission for Economic Co-operation between Slovenia and Serbia is a very important and useful instrument at the national, inter-institutional level, which reviews the current cooperation, and checks the level of fulfillment of previous agreements and initiatives, as well as seeks solutions in relation to possible problems faced by companies in both countries. The meeting of the Mixed Commission was last held in January this year in Slovenia, and it was focused on seeking new opportunities and initiatives to further deepen the bilateral economic cooperation. In this regard, both parties have identified four key areas in which the bilateral cooperation can be boosted on the basis of mutual interest – they are tourism and joint appearance in third markets, agriculture, environmental protection and digitalization (IT). Both sides also expressed their satisfaction with the the development of bilateral economic relations and external trade which has been constantly growing in recent years and reached a record high last year.

Digitalization is one of the priorities of the Serbian government. What are Slovenian experiences in this area, and what kind of know-how can Slovenia offer to Serbia?

In terms of digitalization, Slovenia has accomplished an exceptional progress,and is one of the countries that has the fastest digitalization growth in the EU. In the last few years, we have been carrying out centralization of the entire state IT segment and decision making process which resulted in savings that were then directed towards innovative solutions. These activities were mostly focused on our citizens with an increasing number of services available in the digital domain (e-health, e-tax, e-bills etc.). Considering that there is a mutual interest in cooperation both in Slovenia and Serbia, the Memorandum of Cooperation in the field of digitalization of public administration in Serbia was signed. The two sides agreed to exchange good practice cases in the field of paperless business between businesses and public administration in the following areas: paperless business regulation, development and introduction of e-bills and other standards for e-business between companies and public sector, as well as good practices in introducing e-bills in public sector. The two sides also ascertained possibilities for transfer of the Slovenian experiences in terms of solutions for smart / safe cities and communities. Both sides are also interested in establishing a single information infrastructure for the Serbian state administration (state cloud, telecommunications…) and in implementation of communication protection solutions. Our experts have noted that Serbia has a huge potential in the IT sector, as well as numerous quality IT professionals. Slovenia wants to include top Serbian IT experts in its projects, and to work with them on joint projects in Serbia and Slovenia. Concrete talks regarding this topic are ongoing.

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